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Christians hope for a presence in a peaceful new Jerusalem


JERUSALEM - Their fate overshadowed by an epic struggle between Muslims and Jews, this city's Christians are watching uneasily from the sidelines as Israeli and Palestinian leaders negotiate Jerusalem's future.

Divided and anxious, the Christian population is torn between support for Palestinian rights and a need to protect its shrinking numbers as well as the churches, convents and monasteries that symbolize the biblical account of Jesus' teaching, death and resurrection.

Atallah Hanna, a Greek Orthodox priest, favors full Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the Old City. "That's what will make peace," he says. But leaders of his church are less sure.

Along with senior Catholic and Armenian prelates, Orthodox Patriarch Diodoros I wants future political control over the Old City checked by a system of international guarantees to protect freedom of worship and access to holy sites.

Since the collapse of the Camp David peace talks in July, Israel and the Palestinians have focused their attention on who should control the high stone plateau that is a powerful beacon both to Jews - who know it as the Temple Mount - and to Muslims, who call it the Haram al Sharif.

President Clinton will try anew to broker an agreement beginning today, when he meets separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the United Nations' Millennium Summit in New York.

Many Palestinian Christians, who believe they are descendants of Jesus' original followers, have long chafed at Israeli control over East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.

Resentment flared during the visit of Pope John Paul II last spring, when Israeli authorities decked out the Old City with national flags, flooded its alleys with police in the name of security and barred prominent Palestinian Christians from a papal Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Church employees living in the West Bank are required to renew their work permits with Israeli authorities every three months, and have been kept away from their jobs during periods when Israel sealed off the territories.

Officially, the main Christian denominations view East Jerusalem as occupied territory, and back U.N. resolutions calling for Israel to cede it to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. A number of prominent clerics, including Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah, are Palestinian and have championed their national cause.

Arafat, a Muslim, has made acquiring the Christian quarter second in importance only to the Haram. He took Christian officials with him to a recent meeting in Morocco of the Islamic conference's Jerusalem committee.

According to Arab press reports, Arafat views himself in the tradition of the seventh century Muslim conqueror, Caliph Omar, who declined an invitation to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre so as to protect it for Christians.

But not all Palestinians are eager to see the Israelis leave, although they are reluctant to admit it publicly.

"Most of the Palestinians that I know, most of the Christians, for the most part really are concerned about being put under Palestinian jurisdiction," said Father Peter Vasko, a Franciscan who serves on the Catholic order's governing board.

Apart from the streams of tourists and pilgrims streaming through the Old City, the permanent Christian presence is shrinking. Christians represent less than one-fifth of the Old City's population, and see Muslim merchants moving businesses into the alleys that used to house shops owned by Christians.

"Christians are relating to us all sorts of messages that they are not enchanted with the idea that Arafat is trying to be not only Saladin but also Richard the Lionheart," said an Israeli government official. Saladin drove out the Crusaders in the 12th century; Richard tried to retake Jerusalem, but ended up making a truce with Saladin instead.

A dispute over Russian Orthodox Church property offers a cautionary tale. Palestinian police last winter sided with the Moscow-based Orthodox leadership, and took over a monastery near Jericho, summarily ousting monks belonging to the White Russian Church in exile, which had controlled the monastery for decades.

"I think everybody has to be aware that Christian rights may not be preserved and esteemed the way they should be - neither property rights nor the most basic human rights," said Archbishop Mark of Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.

Palestinian leaders have since made strong efforts to reassure local Christians, and draw praise for their respectful treatment of Christians in Bethlehem, which is under Arafat's control.

Christian leaders, however, aren't certain that a final status deal will take their needs into account. The Latin, Greek Orthodox and Armenian patriarchs tried to be included in the talks at Camp David, but were rebuffed by the United States. One of their fears is that a division of the Old City between Israeli and Palestinian authorities would permanently separate the Armenian and Christian quarters.

Jerusalem's Christians are famous for disunity, as a continuing dispute among denominations over installing a new exit at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre attests. They also hesitate to get involved in political matters, which has weakened their impact on the negotiations.

Some church officials, including the Anglican dean of St. George's Cathedral, Michael Sellors, want the Old City internationalized, meaning it wouldn't come under either Israeli or Palestinian control.

The Catholic Church has backed away from this idea, but still wants the city accorded a "special status" guaranteed by an international body such as the United Nations. Latin Patriarchate Chancellor Raed Abu Sahlieh says the Old City should come under "divine sovereignty."

Seeing the negotiators stymied, Harry Hagopian, an Armenian trained in international law who represents the Middle East Council of Churches here, this week put forward a possible solution: Neither side should get total sovereignty; Palestinians should exercise "de facto" control over Muslim and Christian quarters, and Israel would get the same rights over the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter.

Carl-Heinz Ronecker, spiritual leader of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, says it matters less whether Israelis or Palestinians control the city than that they can guarantee not only access to Christian sites, but the ability of foreign and local Christians to live here and preserve them.

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